How many of us can say that we’ve led an initiative that’s empowered countless girls and young women at 16 years old? Marley Dias can. At 11 years old, she created #1000BlackGirlsBooks with the help of her mother, Dr. Janice Johnson Dias. Now, the campaign – which started out of Marley’s insistence on reading books that centred Black girls as protagonists – has grown to include 13,000 books of varying reading levels so no Black girl feels left out. And on Sunday (7th March), Dias teamed up with Rebel Girls — an organisation that brings stories of diverse women to girls around the world — for the virtual Rebel Girls Fest: Adventure Awaits.
Dias is dedicated to enabling other girls to feel seen in the literature they read, motivated to create art and projects they’re proud of, and starting conversations that drive their passions. She speaks in a way that will push you to see your dreams as attainable even when the world tells you otherwise, and her tenacity for positive change in the lives of Black girls has the energy we sometimes lose as we get older.
R29Unbothered had the chance to speak to Dias about her collaboration with Rebels Girls before the event. Ahead, she shares what she’s learned about herself during the pandemic and her advice for young activists. To watch the event on-demand, you can access it through the link here.
Unbothered: You’ll be hosting Rebel Girls’ interactive virtual International Women’s Day event for young women on 7th March. Can you tell us more about the event and why you wanted to be involved?
Marley Dias: “Rebel Girls has always been a part of my life as someone who entered the activist space at 10. They've been providing entertainment and resources for young girls to learn about social action. I have their book, Good Night Stories for Girls, and I listen to their podcast. They've been able to highlight so many people that I've learned about and now follow and support.
Rebel Girls Fest: Adventure Awaits is really exciting because it's free and it's interactive and it's virtual. So it's accessible to so many people and it's going to hopefully help girls everywhere learn more and feel empowered about who they are and how they can use [their talents]. I was interested in the project because I think it's been kind of difficult to find ways to engage with young girls about what they're interested in and make them feel like they can change the world. Having people like Ann Makosinski and Eris Baker be able to be there (and Melinda Gates) to talk about their experiences in their life, I think can really help. And I'm excited to be able to host that discussion.”
What have been some highlights and struggles of creating #1000BlackGirlsBooks?
MD: “When it comes to #1000BlackGirlBooks, I would say that there are more highlights than struggles. The biggest [struggle] is that I stayed in school while working through #1000BlackGirlBooks. I had a brief two month break before COVID-19 started, but I've been in school this entire time, which is a difficult thing to do. But it’s something that's really important for me, because I get to see my friends, I get to engage with other teenagers, and I get to do something that I've been doing my whole life. My mom helps me and being virtual does kind of help with the amount of things I've been able to do online instead of having to travel and miss school.
The highlights have been the 13,000 books that we've been able to collect, having “Bookmarks” become something that helps so many teachers and educators, and publishing my own book, Marley Dias Gets It Done: And So Can You. But [the biggest highlight is] being able to say that I've done my part and continue to do my part in the fight for diversity and representation for Black girl stories and hopefully educating people that make curriculums — people that publish books and publishing companies. The stories of Black girls are important and that they need to be shared in the same way as all kinds of stories.”
With the work you’ve done with #1000BlackGirlBooks, it’s clear you love to read. When did you first fall in love with words and books.
MD: “I think it comes from my parents repeatedly providing me with those resources, and that's something that is very specific to my own socioeconomic status and the access I have in my life that my parents were able to give me new books every week. I was able to have fun experiences with reading in ways that some other people haven't. With Bookmarks we try our best to level the playing field and allow people of all different kinds of access and experience to see stories. Every episode of Bookmarks is on the Netflix Junior YouTube channel, which is completely free and accessible to everybody. It makes me really happy to think that we're able to use the Internet as a way for people to engage with storytelling in a way that hopefully makes them fall in love with it in the same way I did.”
You’re so young and you’re making incredible strides. What do you think your legacy will be?
MD: "I think the first thing I always say, it sounds kind of corny, but it is true is that I want to be, you know, people give acceptance speeches for awards like a Grammy or an Oscar. I want to be one of those people that gets thanked as the motivator or the reason why they made an Oscar winning movie or the reason why they wrote a National Book Award book. I think it'd be really cool to be that kind of person that’s been able to touch, motivate and inspire people to create other great things.
And I think it's one of the most underrated kinds of feelings, to think that you've been able to contribute to someone else's sense of self. Even if you don't win an actual award, I want to be able to make people feel like they are good enough, they are capable and that they can do important and beautiful things for their communities and communities across the country and the world."
It’s incredible to realise that we’ve been living in a pandemic for a year. What have you been doing during quarantine? Have you learned anything about yourself during this year?
MD: "I learned a lot about myself this year. I think it's been a real test of my own personal resilience and of how much more I've worked. [My calendars are] so much fuller than they used to be because I'm not traveling. I think it's been able to help me reach more people and meet new people, which is really exciting. So I think it's been a true test of how much I can do and how much I'm interested in doing. And I mean, “Bookmarks” was created during a pandemic. I didn't get to meet any of the other authors on the show and we had to stay extremely safe and careful the entire time. So we did our very best. I think it's been really motivating for me to see that if I can do this in such an extenuating circumstance, that there is hope for the future and there will hopefully continue to be after this is over."
As I looked through your Instagram, it’s clear you’ve met some amazing women like Rihanna, Michelle Obama and you’re friends with Marsai Martin. What is it like to meet and get to know such influential Black women?
MD: “I just feel like I could never be in their categories, but I appreciate that and I like getting that question because it may give me a little confidence to think that I would be able to contribute something at that level. They encourage me and empower me a lot. Marsai just absolutely blows my mind every time I see whatever she's doing, because I know from talking to her how difficult it can be for all of us, that a lot of what we do is a commitment of our time, of our energy, of our families. To see the investment that she and her family have made in creating content and media that speak to Black girls’ experiences or challenges what we know about Black girl comedy and young people in the entertainment industry is always noteworthy, bold and beautiful; having a friend like her has helped me so much.
Realising that the expression through children's literature and the kind of storytelling that I fight for is the same kind of storytelling that she fights for with whatever role she takes or project she works on.”
I love that you stay involved in your community, West Orange, New Jersey. What do you see yourself doing in your community in the near future?
MD: “My school curriculum in West Orange school district as a whole is still not as diverse as it needs to be. We have more Black girl stories, but it's Women's History Month; we need to talk more about the contributions of women. We need to have Latinx stories, Asian stories, stories of people with different abilities and we are still lacking that within my own school district. I don't want to be the only person that's fighting for this issue. I hope that I can motivate other students who share those experiences to feel like they can do something about it."
What advice do you have for other young activists?
MD: “My advice for other young activists is to think about how they can use their passions and interests to help others. I think [social media] is a really important tool, but it’s also a way to shape our opinions and how we think about the world. Sometimes it's really important to think about what goes on in our everyday lives, like the resources we have within our town. Do we have the proper sidewalks we need? Do I have a library that is stocked with the books that I like? Do we have healthy food and access through my school?
I always think it's important to start with what you know and what you are going through currently within your life and your community. Because when we talk about really big issues like solving poverty or ending racism, it stems from what happens in our everyday lives. And starting with that point is the best way to break off into thinking about growing your idea.If we start with what we know and care about, we can go really, really far.”